Small-Space Tips From A Tiny-House Owner

One of the biggest trends in home design these days is keeping things small. Take, for instance, tiny houses. Rooted in values of sustainability and community (both locally and globally), the tiny-house phenomenon has grown from an under-the-radar lifestyle your back-to-the-land brother-in-law was mulling over to a culture with its own television series. That show, Tiny House Nation, features hosts Zack Giffin and John Weisbarth traveling the country designing and building tiny dwellings for all types of people looking to downsize and live more simply.
Giffin came to the tiny-house movement via two of his passions (which also happen to be how he makes money, depending on the season): carpentry when it’s warm and skiing when it’s cold. Building his own tiny house seemed to get him closest to the ideal, often remote skiing conditions he seeks out, while also maintaining a comfortable, affordable, and ongoing living space.
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The result is his 112-square-foot cozy “chalet,” which he often shares with his girlfriend Molly, a professional skier. Now, you may not be shacking up with your S.O. in a 112-square-foot chalet anytime soon, but we thought Giffin’s strategies and perspective on living in a small space might be applicable to maximizing your residence in, say, an apartment you wish were a teensy bit larger.
Intrigued by Giffin’s ideas and curious to see his next small-space hack? Keep reading for his tips, and tune in to the new season of Tiny House Nation in January on the fyi network.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Anything that doesn’t serve multiple functions in Zack Giffin’s 112 square feet is not pulling its weight. Cases in point: His wood stove heats the house and serves as a cooking surface; the staircase to his loft acts as both a seat when the house is full and a drying rack for clothes après ski.

While you may not be into cooking on your furnace, consider an ottoman that provides storage, a washer/dryer combo unit, or a table you use both for work and for dinner.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
A central credo of Tiny House Nation is “Use it and lose it” (i.e., use something when you need it; stash it out of sight when you don’t). Giffin’s go-tos are things like Murphy beds and tables that fold down and out of the way when not in use — two good solutions for a small urban apartment. “You’re only sleeping in your bed at night, so why is it taking up a vast amount of floor space all day long?” Giffin suggests. “Things that move and fold create multiple uses.”
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Giffin feels passionately that the tiny-house lifestyle is not about deprivation. Instead, living tiny is an opportunity to identify the things that enrich your life — and dispense with any clutter, both literally and figuratively.

“This is about trying to find solutions without totally sacrificing our living standards,” he says, “and about keeping the things that are really important to you and that make your life worthwhile.”
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
It’s basic but crucial to living well in close quarters: Find ways to make spaces convertible. Giffin’s main living space serves as a living room, but it can also function as a guest bedroom (it also houses his wood stove and the staircase he uses to access his sleeping loft). Overhead in the loft, Giffin has the option of extending the pitched floor by adding a plywood board, instantly creating a sizable storage space.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Giffin’s not anti-stuff. In fact, he recommends that while you’re identifying your priorities and casting off clutter you invest in well-made, high-quality items that you’ll love. For Giffin, that’s top-of-the-line ski gear. For you, that might mean those Egyptian cotton sheets you’ve never allowed yourself to indulge in, or a serious speaker system if music is your thing.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
If you’re looking to scale back, start with a major reality check: Take stock of what you own and what you actually use — or even like. Do you really need eight coffee cups when you reach for the same one every morning? Wouldn’t it be kind of refreshing to know that you love every single pen on your desk (and that each one works) instead of dealing with a collection of sort-of-okay ones?
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Living tiny means making the most of each and every inch in the house, which Giffin sees as a source of inspiration and creativity, particularly when it comes to storage. Common solutions include building shelves or drawers into the traditionally underutilized space below a staircase, or creating storage space in the ceiling or beneath floorboards.

You may not be drafting plans with a contractor at this point in your life, but are you using your space as effectively as possible? Try under-the-bed storage, hooks on the inside of kitchen cabinet doors, and magnetic strips for frequently used spices and knives.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Some might look at the walls of Giffin’s tiny house, devoid of art and decoration, and think they seem a little…bare. Giffin doesn’t see it that way. In fact, he feels the elements of his cozy home are as aesthetically pleasing as any painting or print he could hang — if not more so. For him — a woodworker by trade — it’s all about craftsmanship and high-quality materials.

“I’m not going to put something on [the wall] just because I feel that it needs something there, because [that would be] hiding the true artistry that is my passion, which is construction. When you have a clear space, people’s attention goes to the detail of the work.”

Okay, but you’re not a carpenter. And, no one’s saying, "Don’t put anything on the wall." The point is, well-made things of quality materials can serve as decoration on their own. Consider replacing the put-it-together-yourself coffee table with a well-constructed, beautiful piece you’ll have for decades, or a quality rug unmistakably crafted with care.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Clearly there’s not a lot of room for extra stuff in Giffin’s tiny house. And, yet, he’s got a draught-beer tap set up in his digs. Sure, Giffin likes beer, but to him, the tap serves a purpose beyond providing a cold brew after a long day on the slopes.

“It’s very much about community, about my desire to be connected to other people and have a really welcoming atmosphere,” he says. “That’s a quality-of-life issue.” The upshot: It’s often more gratifying to be surrounded by people than things.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
The tiny-house movement knows a thing or two about feng shui and flow. In that spirit, Giffin recommends keeping a living space open. For him, that means someone in the “living room” area of his house has an unobstructed view of someone in the dining/kitchen area, and the path between the two is unobstructed. His key design hack enabling this is a custom-made spiral staircase, which provides access to the upstairs sleeping loft without cutting the space in half like a traditional ladder might.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Another tenet of tiny living is to maximize what you have, and that extends to the outside. If you’ve got an outdoor space and you’re not using it, you’re missing out on a real opportunity, Giffin says. (His tiny house features a small porch with room for two people, and he now routinely builds rooftop porches for his Tiny House Nation projects.)

“That’s something you can see in city architecture that is really profound: the idea that people need outdoor space. Even if you’re in a big building, people’s energy, their spirit needs a place that is like a garden area, where they can feel like they’re outdoors even if they are in the middle of a city.”
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Giffin’s life is really, really, full — it’s just not full of stuff. You know how when you’re on fire about a project you spend less time coveting the latest iteration of a statement necklace? Or, you kind of forget to eat? Same idea.

“I’m a very busy person. I have so many interests and hobbies I just don’t do anymore because I don’t have time,” he says. “The lack of things cluttering up my house is a testament to the idea that I’m really concerning my thoughts with other stuff.”
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
You don’t have to be an interior designer to know that a huge space arranged poorly can be less appealing than a small one designed well. But, what makes something naturally pleasing to the eye? One answer is something often referred to as the “golden ratio,” which everyone from Dalí to Le Corbusier to da Vinci employed. Essentially, it’s about the proportions that are most aesthetically pleasing to the eye, what “looks right.” (Many argue that we’re hardwired to find this design pleasing, as it’s replicated in nature time and time again.)

Giffin designed his sculptural, wood staircase with the golden ratio in mind; his tiny house’s focal point incorporates steps that proportionally decrease in size as the staircase spirals upward. “I didn’t do it mathematically, but I modeled it on the natural progression of the way leaves grow,” he says. “I think when people see the staircase they recognize that there is intention there, without even realizing that’s what they are seeing, because it looks very natural.”

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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Giffin and his girlfriend have a practical incentive for keeping mealtime as streamlined as possible: The water supply of the tiny house is limited, so the fewer dishes to wash, the better. The couple’s kitchen is pared down to the essentials to maximize efficiency, with a slow cooker and blender doing most of the heavy lifting (mostly for making soups and smoothies, respectively). Other culinary choices include lots of salads and burritos made with fresh ingredients bought the day of that don’t require storage and leave little waste.

You probably have as much water as you need, but do you need all those pots and pans? If cooking is your thing, sure. If you’re ordering Seamless three times a week — and no judgments — maybe reconsider.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
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